William Andrews Clark, Sr. (1839-1925) was an American politician and entrepreneur, who made his fortune in mining, banking, and railroads.
Clark was born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. He moved with his family to Iowa in 1856 where he taught school and studied law at Iowa Wesleyan College. After working in quartz mines in Colorado, Clark made his way to Montana in 1863, to find his fortune in the gold rush.
He settled in Bannack, the capital of Montana Territory, and began placer mining. Though his claim paid only moderately, Clark invested his earnings in becoming a trader, driving wagons between Salt Lake City and the boomtowns of Montana to transport basic supplies.
He later became a banker in Deer Lodge, Montana. He repossessed mining properties when owners defaulted on their loans, eventually establishing him in the mining industry. He made a fortune with small smelters, electric power companies, newspapers, railroads and other businesses, becoming known as one of three “Copper Kings” of Butte, Montana, along with Marcus Daly and F. Augustus Heinze.
Between 1884 and 1888, Clark constructed a 34-room, Tiffany-decorated, multimillion dollar home with cutting-edge technology in Butte. This home is now the Copper King Mansion bed-and-breakfast and museum.
Clark served as president of both Montana state constitutional conventions in 1884 and 1889.
Clark yearned to be a statesman and used his newspaper, the Butte Miner, to push his political ambitions. At this time, Butte was one of the largest cities in the West. He became a hero in Helena, Montana, by campaigning for its election as the state capital, replacing Anaconda. This battle for the placement of the capital had an undertone of Irish vs. English, Catholic vs. Protestant, and Masonic vs. non-Masonic elements.
Clark’s long-standing desire to become a U.S. Senator resulted in scandal in 1899, when it was revealed that he bribed members of the Montana State Legislature in return for their votes. At the time, U.S. senators were chosen by their state legislators. The corruption associated with his election contributed to the passage of the 17th Amendment, which mandated that U.S. senators be elected by popular vote in each state.
The U.S. Senate refused to seat Clark because of the 1899 bribery scheme, but a later senate campaign was successful, and he served a single term from 1901 until 1907. In responding to criticism of his bribery of the Montana legislature, Clark is reported to have said, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”
Clark died in 1925 at the age of 86 in his mansion at 952 Fifth Avenue in New York City. One of the 50 richest Americans at that point in history, his estate was valued at $150,000,000.
In a 1907 essay entitled “Senator Clark of Montana,” Mark Twain portrayed Clark as the very embodiment of Gilded Age excess and corruption:
“He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.”
Editor Phil Robertson is an award-wining journalist and graphic designer. With a degree from the University of Florida’s School of Journalism, his career in journalism and publishing spans over 30 years, and includes positions as editor and publisher for several newspapers and magazines. During his career he has received a first-place award for investigative journalism from the Society of Newspaper Editors, and five ADDY awards for advertising design.